It was a custom in ancient times for a bride to be bathed before her wedding. The custom was not simply carried out for aesthetic purposes. That bath had the same symbolic idea as a white wedding gown. The freshly bathed bride would arrive at the altar pure and clean. She would be, in the language of Ephesians 5, "having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing" (v. 27). Any impurity or defilement that might have existed was figuratively washed away in that prenuptial bath.

In the same way, when a man confesses his sins and comes to Christ, he is cleansed from all unrighteousness. Old things are passed away, according to 2 Corinthians 5:17, and all things are made new. Our Bridegroom washes us with his blood, and we publicly declare that we are his in a covenant cleansing ceremony of our own -- baptism.

There is a significant difference between the ancient custom of a wedding day bath and the cleansing of the bride spoken of in Ephesians 5. In the first case, the bride makes herself ready for her husband. But in the Scriptures, the bride of Christ is incapable of cleansing herself. It is her Beloved who cleanses her, with his own blood, and who washes her in water with the Word.

Now, in a very real sense, God the Holy Spirit is the agent of sanctification in the life of every believer. He is the one who is charged with the responsibility of conforming us to the image of Christ. Although his ministry to us is sometimes direct and personal, he often chooses to work through the lives of other believers to press us toward holiness.

According to this passage, then, God wants a husband to follow the example of Christ, and to take responsibility for his wife's spiritual growth. John MacArthur says it this way: just as "saving grace makes believers holy through the cleansing agency of the Word of God . . . it is with that same purpose and in that same love that husbands are to cultivate the purity, righteousness, and sanctity of their wives."1 Or, as James Boice states it, "God holds husbands responsible for the spiritual growth and maturing of their wives."2

This responsibility for my wife's spiritual growth involves two primary assignments: I am not to lead her into sin, and I am to lead her into righteousness.

A few years back I was a guest on a radio talk show, fielding calls from listeners about marriage. A young woman who called in that day said that she and her husband were having marital problems. As she explained it to me, there were sexual practices he wanted her to engage in which are clearly forbidden in Scripture, including the two of them viewing pornography together. He was angry with her because of her refusal, and she called me, wondering if she should submit to him in these practices. She told me that her husband claimed to be a follower of Christ.

The only way a husband can lead his wife into sin is if he is going there himself. I believe there are many husbands today who are attempting to justify their own sinful behavior by trying to get their wives to join them in it. I told this caller that a wife is never to obey her husband if he asks her to violate the commands of God. In this case I suggested that she seek counsel from her pastor, asking him if he thought she ought to participate in these activities. My hope was not only to direct her to ongoing godly counsel, but also to expose her husband's sin in hopes that the church would confront him and hold him accountable.

In Genesis 12 we read about a husband who led his wife into sin. The father of the nation of Israel, Abraham, began his patriarchal career by asking his wife to tell a little white lie.

Abram and his wife Sarai had gone to Egypt to find food, for there was a famine in the land where God had brought them. Abram was afraid that some Egyptian man would find Sarai attractive and would kill him so that he might have her for his wife. So Abram instructed Sarai to lie and to say she was his sister.